MEADVILLE — When September came around he told Mary he was shaving it off. “She said, ‘Oh dear, please keep it at least until New Year’s.’ Well, it takes two to make a marriage,” Eldridge said, so he didn’t shave. “The longer I let it grow the whiter it became.”
Then it began. He started getting requests to play Santa.
“I don’t know how to play Santa,” he’d tell them at first, but he finally agreed to try.
The first time he did it was for preschoolers and he rented a suit that Mary had to wash beforehand because it was so dirty and smelly. Mary then made him his own suit. A few years went by and he would only play Santa for friends.
Then Martha Miller, who was the head of the Chamber of Commerce, asked if Eldridge would play Santa and go around town to area businesses to cheer up people during the holidays. He refused.
“Santa is for children,” he told her.
When Miller asked him to reconsider in front of Mary, Mary had no part of his argument. She and Miller convinced him to do it. Eldridge said he would but only if he could play Santa for the children in between his stops, if he could become a “roving Santa” walking all over town and playing Santa for everyone he encountered.
After warming up to the idea of being Santa, Eldridge had an idea. He told Miller, “Let’s get a picture of Santa in the Tribune, on the front page, inviting everyone to town for a hometown Christmas.” It was in the day of black and white and they pitched the idea to the paper in color. The publisher at the time, Bob Smith, hesitated. He told them that printing the picture in color would be expensive and getting it ready would take time, but he agreed to back the plan.